The name Delbert Plett has become virtually synonymous with Kleine Gemeinde Mennonite historiography. Plett, through the publication of his seven-volume
Kleine Gemeinde Historical Series, has single-handedly lifted the Kleine Gemeinde from their previous obscurity and placed them into the mainstream of Russian Mennonite historical studies. These previous volumes were almost entirely collections of primary documents and genealogical data. Now, with Saints and Sinners, Plett provides a narrative framework to tell the story he has discovered in these documents.
Plett argues that most Mennonite historians since the nineteenth century have engaged in a calculated, systematic effort to denigrate the Kleine Gemeinde, bring them into
disrepute and disrespect, and portray them as
arch-reactionaries clinging desperately to outmoded and useless mores of the past (p. 5). The truth, as Plett understands it, is much different.
The purpose for the founding of the Kleine Gemeinde, he claims,
was the restitution or restoration of the Apostolic Church, as rediscovered by the seminal leaders of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith in the Reformation times (p. 9).
The Anabaptist Vision, provides a brief overview of church history from the Apostolic era to the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. Plett’s purpose here is to lay the historic context for the Kleine Gemeinde, who he believes best carried on the genuine Christian tradition. As the chapter’s title suggests, Plett largely follows the interpretation of Anabaptism developed by Harold S. Bender in the first half of the twentieth century. While subsequent historiography has revealed Bender’s model to be a useful but excessively narrow interpretation of a complex socio-religious movement, Plett fails to even acknowledge the existence of this later work. As a result, he argues that the Kleine Gemeinde carried on an Anabaptist tradition that seems never to have existed in the pure form described by Bender.
Plett then goes on to describe the Prussian and Russian context for the birth of the Kleine Gemeinde. He points especially to the Flemish Mennonite tradition within Prussia, arguing that the Kleine Gemeinde largely arose from that branch of the Mennonite Church. In Russia, Plett describes the various religious and cultural conflicts that eventually caused a small group of Mennonites to separate from the larger group in 1812, which became known as the Kleine Gemeinde.
The Kleine Gemeinde, according to Plett, was a grass-roots movement led by generally well-to-do
conservative intellectuals determined to maintain the traditional Mennonite faith. He points to their strong appreciation for historical Mennonite devotional literature such as the Martyrs Mirror and the writings of Pieter Pieters as evidence of their loyalty to that tradition. Plett further shows that the Kleine Gemeinde played an important role within the Russian Mennonite colonies, not only as a voice for conservative values but also as a peacemaker in Mennonite civil disputes.
Plett interrupts his chronological narrative to explore Kleine Gemeinde cultural and social life, the role of women within that movement, and the importance of family connections in shaping a distinctive church. Plett’s far-ranging knowledge of Kleine Gemeinde genealogy serves him well in the chapter on family linkages, as he describes in detail the intricate web of inter-relationships that characterized them.
Plett’s book is more, however, than simply a history of the Kleine Gemeinde. It also is an indictment of what he calls the
Separatist-Pietist movement within Russian Mennonitism. Plett argues that this movement was a particularly virulent form of Württemburg Pietism,
which declared all other churches to be of the devil and demanded
that believers needed to adopt its religious culture in order to obtain ‘salvation.’ Plett further claims that
Separatist-Pietist religious culture typically included legalistic salvation plans, deferral of the reign of Christ to a future age (dispensationalism), fabled endtimes teachings (millennialism), and the belief that they were the only ‘true’ Christians (p. 93). In its Mennonite incarnation, Separatist-Pietism set out deliberately to
eradicate the traditional Mennonite faith in Russia (p. 70).
Plett’s continual use of the phrase
Separatist-Pietist is curious, since the term is unknown in Mennonite writings of the nineteenth century or in subsequent historiography. While the influence of Pietism and millennialism among Russian Mennonites is well-documented, as are the separatist tendencies of groups such as the Mennonite Brethren, the combination of all these concepts into a single unified movement seems over-stated. Plett seems more interested in creating a foil against which he may contrast the faithful Kleine Gemeinde than in actually understanding the complex religious and intellectual movements that were transforming the face of the nineteenth-century Russian Mennonite world.
In light of Plett’s contention that the Kleine Gemeinde have been unfairly caricatured by Mennonite historians, it is exceedingly ironic that so much of his book consists of attacks against the
Separatist-Pietists. Plett argues that their practices of church discipline consisted of
psychological terror and
thought control, reminiscent of the Salem witch trials (p. 211). They
often showed thinly veiled disdain for elders as demonstrated in numerous situations torturing grandparents on their death beds to recant the traditional faith which was ridiculed and brought into disrepute by lies and untruth (p. 219). Their worship, according to Plett, was characterized by
blaring music, jingoistic speakers, dancing and gyrating, all calculated to create the state of frenzy necessary for such hysterical religious exercises (p. 135). The Separatist-Pietist agenda was carried out by
hordes of fanatical missionaries prowling the steppes of Russia, seeking to break apart families and congregations (p. 297). Finally, Plett makes the far-reaching statement that
there is no doubt that Satan frequently used Separatist-Pietists to achieve his goals of assaulting those aspiring in their weakness to follow Jesus (p. 328).
While it certainly is true that extreme behavior occurred among those Plett calls
Separatist-Pietists, it seems unfair to impute such thoroughly malicious motives to them. His historical narrative seems not so much even-handed scholarship as the argument of a lawyer (which Plett is) on behalf of a client, in this case the Kleine Gemeinde. Not content merely to defend his client’s character, Plett attempts to undermine the credibility of those who previously opposed and criticized the Kleine Gemeinde.
Plett is especially critical of Peter M. Friesen, whose 1911 history of Mennonites in Russia he cites as the prime example of historiographical prejudice against the Kleine Gemeinde. Friesen was, according to Plett,
a fanatical pietist who disparaged anyone who did not fit into his legalistic salvation plans, separatist agenda and endtimes fantasies (p. 69-70). He claims that Friesen
typically lauded anything ever done by an adherent of Separatist-Pietism (p. 100), though this claim reveals a very selective and careless reading of Friesen’s history of the Mennonites in Russia. Friesen, in fact, was extremely critical of early Mennonite Brethren leaders such as Jakob Becker, Benjamin Bekker and Gerhard Wieler, all of whom seemingly would fall into Plett’s definition of Separatist-Pietism.
Plett does acknowledge that the Kleine Gemeinde sometimes fell into error, particularly in what he calls the
false-humility movement of 1829. He manages, however, to turn even this event into an indictment of Pietism, calling the movement
a form of reverse pietism (p. 78) that emphasized inward feelings of fear and humility. Plett further argues that the Kleine Gemeinde should not be idealized and that they were as prone to sin and error as any group of Christians. Yet despite these disclaimers, it seems fairly clear that the Kleine Gemeinde are the
saints and the Separatist-Pietists the
sinners in Plett’s narrative.
These criticisms aside, Saints and Sinners does make an important contribution to the literature of Mennonite history. Plett’s detailed treatment of the Kleine Gemeinde helps us better understand a small yet important reform movement within the Russian Mennonite world. We all are beneficiaries of his many years of dedicated research and writing.
Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies
Fresno Pacific University